Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mary Parker Sonis: Bearing witness

‘The bear submerged herself in the cool water, and then began to moan. The sound was relief: long, low moans of pure delight to be immersed in the cool water on this very hot morning.’
‘The bear submerged herself in the cool water, and then began to moan. The sound was relief: long, low moans of pure delight to be immersed in the cool water on this very hot morning.’ MARY PARKER SONIS

Every pocket, cubby and hideaway of my suburban RAV4 was packed with tins, vials and pump bottles of insect repellant, and we’re not talking the pleasant “family spring garden” scent, we’re talking the odorous, DEET-heavy stuff that clings to clothing long after the vacation is a distant memory.

Camera, lenses, memory cards, and tripod were tucked in the back of the car, and I was ready for my great adventure to the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. This is my pinnacle vacation, and it is one I always take alone. Somehow, friends and relatives don’t relish the 5 a.m. wake-up to visit bears at dawn, followed by an afternoon down time spent reading mystery novels in a motel room, followed by a sunset trip back to the refuge for more bear watching.

Scattered between the photo excursions are trips to gas stations for meals. The early wake-up, and late-evening trips leave me too tired for beach afternoons, and dinner in a nice restaurant interferes with sunset observation time. Of course, this type of vacation is not exactly family friendly, but occasionally, I do love the total immersion feeling of the whole affair.

July brought both the expected blistering heat and the very public appearance of our North Carolina coastal bears. On the evening of my arrival to the refuge, I saw bears everywhere, some alone, some with cubs, some wandering the wildlife road, and others quickly disappearing into the numerous canals that separate the agricultural fields from the gravel roads. Although the refuge has gained popularity, and has numerous cars cruising the graveled roads, I still observed more bears than humans on my first evening at the refuge.

Time to fess up. I am spoiled. I have become accustomed to the usual bear sightings. The Canon memory card was filled with quiet shots of bears on the road, doing exactly what you might expect bears to do, walking slowly to a field and eating vegetation. Nothing more.

As a wildlife photographer, I had higher hopes. The interesting shots come when wildlife does something. Hunting, climbing, grooming, anything that shows the natural behavior of an animal makes for an exciting shot, and I had a load of very sedate photos.

In the draining heat, the bears moved slowly on the roads, their heads surrounded by a halo of swirling deerflies. The bugs were so determined that I often observed them clinging to the outside of my car, as if the very metal held some trace mammal scent that drew them closer to a meal. The bears stoically ignored the gnats that clung to their eyes and the large flies that clung hungrily to their large tender muzzles; still, I can’t imagine that these huge beasts with their dense black coats were comfortable in this environment.

The following morning was a reverse of the evening routine. All the bears that had been feeding at night in the soybean fields were making their way back to the forest before the refuge heated up for the day. Heading down Sawyer Road, I saw an adolescent bear ambling along, and I got out of the car to take a few photos. The youngster slipped away into the dense Pocosin underbrush before I could manage anything worthwhile. The canal was on my left, and I heard the cracking of branches from across the water.

Here’s a fact that might be comforting; bears are noisy. I mean, if a bear is stalking you, it is as if some big guy in Bermuda shorts and Keds is trying to fumble his way through the woods. You don’t hear vocalizations, but you do hear branches cracking, and loud rustling. So, on my left, I knew there was a bear.

I stood next to my open-doored car, because loud warning or not, bears can be very fast. I peered over the creek side vegetation and there she was – a large sow poised to enter the canal. Oh please don’t bound, I thought; I am not prepared for any bounding three hundred pound bear.

Her huge claws rested splayed on a small log. There I stood, wondering if it was time to jump back into the car. She looked up at me and entered the water, closer still. I liked her face.

The night before, I had photographed a huge male with a wide wrinkled muzzle. That bear had a calculating expression that had me backing up, but this bear seemed milder. There was no teeth clacking or head bobbing, so I remained standing near the canal. The bear submerged herself in the cool water, and then began to moan. The sound was relief; long low moans of pure delight to be immersed in the cool water on this very hot morning. She sighed, and groaned, and shook the delicious water from her massive head.

Black bears rarely vocalize in the presence of humans, and here I was observing a bear without interfering or intruding upon her natural behavior. I was shooting away, enjoying every moment of a bear behaving as if unobserved.

After a few minutes of all the shaking and moaning, the bear sat up. She closed her eyes, and sat upright, like a small child in a bathtub. She barely looked at me. (Apparently, there wouldn’t be an article in the paper that read “North Carolina woman savaged by bear near shopping mall.”)

I stood near the bear for many minutes, and eventually, she left the water to rise up on her hind legs and rub her back against a tree trunk. In order to press her back against the trunk, she broke more branches that were blocking her way. The power of her push against a tree had branches cracking away, and I was awed once more by both her massive size standing upright, and by the passive strength that made the tree list sideways as she pressed against it. In no particular hurry she turned and slipped back into the dense thicket.

My return to the car may have included some minor shuffling little victory dance along with an inner voice that whispered, “You got it”.

Mary Parker Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboor. You can reach her at